Duke Trustee J.B. Pritzker, Trinity '87, assumed office last Monday as governor of Illinois.
A businessman and philanthropist, Pritzker won the Illinois governor's race last November as a Democratic candidate to become the wealthiest politician in the country, surpassing President Donald Trump. Throughout his career as a businessman, Pritzker explained he has tried to advance public policy and to be philanthropic. He is especially committed to advocating for early childhood education for at-risk children.
“[My goal is to] do good wherever I can with any resources that I had—and I think I have done that,” Pritzker said.
'A model for me': How Duke shaped Pritzker
Pritzker said his career in public service and involvement in civil rights organizations stems from his experiences as an undergraduate majoring in political science on Duke’s campus.
As an upperclassman at the University, Pritzker helped to make arrangements and preparations for former Duke President Terry Sanford's public appearances during Sanford's campaign for U.S. Senate.
Pritzker traveled all over the state spending time on the campaign trail with Sanford—who had recently retired from his 15-year presidency—which took up most of his free time as a student. When Sanford won his election during Pritzker's senior year, he headed to Capitol Hill to work for Sanford.
“Terry Sanford really became a model for me,” Pritzker said. “He was actually desegregating schools and built the state’s community college system as desegregated from the very beginning. In many ways he sacrificed his career.”
Sanford was a white man who grew up in the rural South but was deeply engaged in the advancement of people of color throughout his lifetime.
As governor of North Carolina, Sanford was dedicated to promoting civil rights and integrating schools in the early 1960s, when most southern governors were opposed to desegregation, Pritzker said. Sanford earned the sobriquet of "High Tax Terry" during his governorship for raising taxes to improve the state university and community college systems.
Most of Pritzker's senior staff is mainly people of color, he said. His lieutenant governor, Juliana Stratton, is an African-American woman, and Jordan Abudayyeh, his press secretary, is an Arab American woman.
Pritzker's time at Duke also shaped an interest in civil rights advocacy.
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In the two classes Pritzker took with C. Eric Lincoln—professor of religion and culture at Duke from 1976 to 1993 and author of books on black Muslims in America—Pritzker learned a lot about civil rights advocacy and leadership, such as the relationships between African-American activists and civil rights activists outside and inside government.
However, his parents had already played a large role by instilling their values in Pritzker.
“I’ve spent my whole life as an advocate expanding civil rights and individual rights because my parents were progressive Democrats and were involved in issues like fighting for women’s rights,” Pritzker said. “My mother marched for the Equal Rights Amendment in the '70s and advocated for reproductive rights around the time Roe v. Wade was decided.”
Pritzker: The scion and businessman
Pritzker lost his father when he was seven and his mother when he was 17, but his parents' commitment to engaging in public service stuck with him.
“My father and mother built a very successful motel business that turned into a very successful hotel business,” he said. “I have an amazing family and am very fortunate to have had the opportunities that I’ve had and to have grown up around a group of highly successful people.”
That very successful hotel business, Hyatt, was founded by his uncle Jay Pritzker. J.B. Pritzker's father, Donald, stepped in to help grow the business into the chain it is today.
Pritzker is an heir to that fortune. With a net worth of $3.2 billion, he is the second-wealthiest American politician ever behind former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
His sister Penny—a businesswoman and billionaire—was commerce secretary for President Barack Obama. His brother Anthony was his business partner for 17 years in running a private equity firm until 2017, when Pritzker decided to run for governor.
“I’m a businessman for my whole career,” Pritzker said. “I’m an attorney also but I don’t practice law. It’s just my degree and background. I’m a businessman who has built my own business and am very involved in building the technology community here in Illinois.”
He invested in many technology businesses including Elon Musk's company SpaceX and is the owner of several manufacturing and industrial service companies.
Pritzker helped lead the creation of the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center that teaches more than 60,000 students and teachers every year to fight bigotry, hatred, and intolerance.
“I am a Jew who comes from a family that is only alive in this country because they were going to be killed in their home country of Ukraine when Jews were being chased and oppressed and killed,” Pritzker said.
Pritzker has a wife and two teenage kids.
“I’m very fortunate that I married a terrific, amazing woman who is smarter than I am and as committed as I am to the idea that we needed to do public service,” he said.
Moving forward as governor
Field organizer Danielle Elliott described Pritzker as charismatic, funny and making a difference using his power and experiences. An Illinois native, Elliott joined the campaign because she “really wanted to flip that seat” as part of the "blue wave."
In November's Illinois governor election, Pritzker beat the Republican incumbent—and fellow wealthy businessman with a self-funded campaign—Bruce Rauner 54 to 39 percent.
Rauner accused Pritzker of dodging property taxes and even included a dramatized reenactment of toilets being removed from Pritzker’s uninhabited mansion in Rauner’s TV ad.
Pritzker said that the home was under renovation and “a lot of things were being removed from that home in the process.”
Between a toilet scandal and racial controversies including allegations of racial discrimination and two campaign workers being fired over a video that resembled blackface, the Pritzker campaign had a difficult couple months leading up to the election.
“[In response to those attacks], I would bring up talking points and learn about what they care about,” Elliott said.
She said that amidst all of these scandals, the campaign continued to focus on early childhood education and expanding access to affordable healthcare.
Aside from Pritzker’s other obligations, he joined Duke’s Board of Trustees in 2017 and came to the board meeting in December. He serves on the Resources Committee and the Next Generation Living and Learning Experience Task Force.